North by Northwest

Elevated view for scale

If you are of a certain age you will recognize this photos of Mt. Rushmore from the climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 classic “North by Northwest” staring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. If you are not of that certain age, seek out and rent this movie, you will thank me. Celebrating the artistry of the painted backdrop, this 90 foot wide piece is one of twenty on exhibit in Art of the Hollywood Backdrop at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. 

These are larger than life backdrops painted by masters of the craft to imperceptibly blend onto the screen. Unfortunately, these artists worked anonymously, and their work while magnificent, went unheralded. Art of the Hollywood Backdrop brings long due recognition to these master craftspeople.

The making of a backdrop is a collaborative effort. In its heyday MGM had the premier scenic painting studio in Hollywood led by George Gibson. The studio produced backdrops for: The Wizard of Oz, An American in Paris, Brigadoon, North by Northwest and hundreds more. Of utmost importance for these backdrop projects was uniformity. Gibson had a system and method for painting scenics and his artists worked within that system. To give you an idea, here is a list of the team members, whom I am sure you never knew of, and their specialties: 

  • Wayne Hill and Art Rider, colorists 
  • Bill J. Smart and Ben Carre, layout and perspective
  • Clem Hall, architecture
  • Bob Oberdeck and Harry Tepper, ;landscape
  • Leo Atkinson could render every cloud formation
  • Clark Provins and Duncan Spencer specialized in landscape and architecture. 

The last of the great MGM backdrops was probably that for The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968). It was in 1969 that MGM was sold and with that came a restructuring and sale of its assets and destruction of sets, costumes, props and more. Fortunately, MGM’s inventory of backdrops was held safe in their scenic painting storage area.

Here is a selection of backdrops with the name of the movie captioned where available. Some of the backdrops had video displays adjacent to them with clips from the movie and production discussion.

For largest display, click on the image

Ben Hur

From an unknown film, this is Montnarte district, Paris

Sound of Music

Sound of Music

Unknown film

Two Weeks in Another Town

American in Paris

Ben Hur

Donald O Conner, Singin’ in the Rain

Singin’ in the Rain

7 Brides for 7 Brothers

Marnie, Universal Pictures

Boca Museum of Art

Aside from the monumental display of backdrops, there are informational panels, displays and videos throughout the exhibit. 

Instructional video

Artist’s Work Table

Display panels

The exhibition runs through January 22, 2023. If you live in South Florida and are a film buff, (who isn’t?) try to catch the exhibit. 

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